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video thumbnailABCWinter weatherHeavy snowstorm leaves Boston streets desertedRon ClaiborneBoston
video thumbnailNBCWinter weatherTransportation disrupted in air, on highwaysTom CostelloMaryland
video thumbnailCBSHealthcare reform: employers must cover contraceptionNuns sue, object to certifying their oppositionJan CrawfordWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSSurgery mishap leaves tonsil patient brain deadHospital refuses medical treatment on corpseJohn BlackstoneSan Francisco
video thumbnailNBCGenetically-modified foods cause controversyGeneral Mills removes GMO corn from CheeriosStephanie GoskNew York
video thumbnailCBSIraq: combat aftermath after US troops pull outMilitia ousts government troops from FallujahDavid MartinPentagon
video thumbnailABCAfrican security contractor exposed as scamUSNavy SEAL impostor claimed to run $500m firmMatt GutmanMiami
video thumbnailCBSVolcano erupts beneath glacier in IcelandTrek to fire-and-ice rim of EyjafjallajokullScott PelleyIceland
video thumbnailNBCSochi Winter Olympic Games in Russia previewedPresident Putin inspects Ring of Steel securityJim MacedaRussia
video thumbnailABCOlympic ice skating Harding-Kerrigan feud of 1993ESPN docu The Price of Gold on knee attackJohn DonvanWashington DC
 
TYNDALL BLOG: DAILY NOTES ON NETWORK TELEVISION NIGHTLY NEWS
BOB SIMON'S LEGACY: NO ONE WAS BETTER AT SETTING WORDS TO IMAGES The Hollywood Reporter asked me to write a tribute to CBS News' foreign correspondent Bob Simon, who died in a car crash on February 11th, 2015, at age 73. I cross-post it here:

At the dawn of television news, a foreign correspondent had to file reports on film, which was then jetted to a laboratory back home for processing, ready to appear on air several days later. This meant that actual breaking news from abroad had to be read as copy by the anchor, and that the foreign correspondent's role was to provide non-time-specific background features.

The second phase saw a conversion from film to video, and transmission by satellite rather than jetliner. This phase allowed Ted Turner to assemble his global CNN brand. It allowed ABC World News Tonight to base Peter Jennings as its live anchor in London. And for the first time, breaking foreign news could be covered in real time on a nightly basis as easily as breaking domestic stories.

The third phase -- the current one -- sees a switch from satellite to the Internet, and from tape to digital. Lightweight equipment with better cameras and microphones allow smaller, more agile crews. Broadcast correspondents are now living in the same world as VICE video and digital freelancers.

Bob Simon is most vividly remembered as the long-form reporter at 60 Minutes, his assignment for the final 15 years of his career -- and rightly so. It was there that memories of him are freshest and where his audiences were largest. Funnily enough, although it represents the most recent phase of his career, 60 Minutes' stories turn out to resemble the features of the film era.

Simon's true claim to fame in the history of television news is as the preeminent foreign correspondent of the second phase, from-videotape-to-satellite, from his posting to CBS News' Tel Aviv bureau through the end of the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia, when the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts were still dominant, before the rise of the 24-hour news channels, long before there was such a thing as digital video.

Such was the enthusiasm at the network news for breaking foreign news during that period that Simon, and his rivals at NBC and ABC, would routinely file four weeknights out of five from Israel and the West Bank at the height of the first Palestinian intifada.

Desert Storm, the 1991 war to repel Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, should have been the sweet spot of Simon's career, when both he and the network television news divisions were in their primes. Chafing at the restrictions imposed on his reporting by the Pentagon, he and his crew set off into the desert to find their own stories and famously spent the war in an Iraqi torture cell instead. If his 60 Minutes career resembled the film era, this Gulf War episode resembles the dangers facing the modern gonzo digital era.

Sandwiched between Desert Storm and the Siege of Sarajevo -- and now mostly forgotten -- came the Marines Corps' so-called humanitarian invasion of famine-riddled Somalia in December 1992. Simon, naturally, was assigned to cover the warzone and it was here that he demonstrated the chops that his Iraqi jailers prevented him from showcasing in Kuwait.

This is how the Tyndall Report described Simon's stylings in March 1993:

"After one week the anchors went back home, but their presence had done the job, justifying the deployment of so many journalistic resources to such an unaccustomed corner of the world. CBS' veteran foreign correspondent Bob Simon took up the reins, and was there as the Humvees rolled to Baidoa, yet again proving to be nonpareil at his trade. A Simon sampler:

-- At the feeding center, the children's salvation had come in the form of men dressed up like chocolate-chip cookies.

-- The Marines rode down the road to hunger, to the town that starving children had put on the map -- from the Halls of Montezuma to a room in Hell called Baidoa.

-- As soon as the Marines move on the looters will be back. Villagers pleaded with Marines to stay with them -- before the Marines moved on. At the end of the food chain is a guy with a gun.

-- This country's only export is pictures of starving children, which it trades for bags of wheat.

The days of dominance for the evening newscasts are over. His successors at CBS News -- the trio of Holly Williams, Clarissa Ward, Elizabeth Palmer -- and Richard Engel at NBC have disadvantages and advantages compared with Simon. They report to smaller audiences and have less clout to shape the national news agenda; the occasional warzone danger that Simon's plight in Iraq dramatized is now ubiquitous, as the decapitations of freelancer James Foley and Japanese TV's Kenji Goto made brutally clear. On the other hand, today's digital correspondents have more agile equipment than ever; they can get closer to the action, can collect video in the most inhospitable of conditions, and are able to conduct interviews without encumbering crews and equipment.

These technical advantages have led to two innovative styles of reporting that were not available in Simon's heyday. The first humanizes a story: CBS' Arab-speaking Ward, in particular, adds drama to her war reporting by adding the anecdotal intimacy of individual profiles. The second provides action: NBC's Engel likes to file video from the actual battlefield.

(In passing, we should note that this latter virtue of immediacy can easily turn into a vice, leading to showboating by the correspondent, making him the central character in his own reality TV show rather than observing and reporting on the actions of others)

Despite these innovations, Bob Simon's legacy reminds us of a third way in which reporters impart immediacy and insight into their stories. The medium of video is, after all, properly an audio-video medium. The audio component encompasses wild sound, yes, and soundbites by interview subjects, too. It also allows for narration by the correspondent. No one was better at setting words to images than Bob Simon. In the hurly-burly of battles, the skill required to calm down, think clearly, and write aphoristically is rare indeed -- and one that modern digital video journalists should try to emulate.


BRIAN WILLIAMS IS NOT THE INDISPENSABLE MAN For those of you who do not watch NBC Nightly News as closely as I do (by which I mean almost the entire population) let me assure you that the suspension of Brian Williams from the anchor desk for six months is not that big a deal as far as the newscast is concerned.

If you watch the evening news, you will see that the important journalistic work is delivered each night by four or five pre-taped, edited packages filed before its first commercial break. These cover the major national and international hard news of the day. They constitute a summary of the most important and consequential developments of the previous 24 hours. The work of reporting, factchecking, interviewing, videography, graphics, writing, editing and presenting is done by correspondents, their producers and their crews.

For all significant intents and purposes, the nightly newscast is a correspondent's medium, not one that belongs to its anchor.

If you look at Williams' role on a typical nightly newscast, you will see that he showcases his special talents -- his smooth delivery, his sardonic understatement, his wry smile, his showcasing of his patriotic, Jersey Boy, blue collar roots -- in the two-minute segment, the so-called Third Block, between the second and third commercial island, some 20 minutes from the top of the newscast, for away from its important business.

So Williams' vaunted celebrity stylings act, as it were, as the dessert course, after the meat-and-potatoes are dispensed with. It is significant that the fib that brought about his downfall -- the grenade in the wrong Chinook helicopter -- was told in the Third Block in one of those Jersey Boy riffs.

To be sure, Williams' name is on the newscast, and in the vernacular, viewers will refer to it by his name -- "I watch Williams, not that guy Pelley" -- rather than by the name of the network. But this phenomenon is a Januslike one: as much as it projects personal attributes that belong to the anchor onto the newscast as a whole, the opposite is also true; the positive appeal, or negative defects, of the newscast as a whole is personified onto the blank slate that is the anchor's image.

It is on cable news that the anchor and content are truly merged. Bill O'Reilly or Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow are truly indispensible to, and inseparable from, the hour-long programs that bear their name.

Traditionally on broadcast news, the importance of the nightly introductory Teleprompter-reading role of the anchor has been a placeholder position for those times when he truly has to play the News Anchor proper. When major stories break (a 9/11 attack, the outbreak of war), or giant set-piece events are staged (such as a State of the Union speech or a Presidential election), that is when his skills kick in: the ability to be facile on live television, to evaluate the importance of events instantly as they arrive, the image of calm in a crisis and concern over calamity.

In the meantime there are two reasons that the anchor reads the Teleprompter each night: to become a familiar and reassuring face in advance of that crisis, and by immersion to acquire a thorough familiarity with the news of the day so that he will be prepared, whatever the source of the crisis might be.

Now comes Williams' suspension -- and a six-month experiment to test whether a celebrity anchor is as dispensable to those newscasts as I believe he is. Although the suspension is unprecedented, the experiment is not. This is its third occurrence and I have been vindicated both times before. CBS News made a bet on the indispensability of the celebrity anchor when it hired the Katie Couric to boost its evening newscast ratings; she did more harm than good. ABC News made the opposite bet when it delinked the role of evening newsreader from lead anchorman when it hired David Muir to replace the celebrity anchor Diane Sawyer; so far Muir has suffered few audience defections, in fact, if anything, he has attracted viewers.

Network nightly newscast audiences are remarkably stable, if gradually aging and declining. Audience size is determined much more by the performance of their lead-in local newscasts than by the identity of the newsreader. And, as said, journalistic content is determined much more by the performance of correspondents and producers than by the newsreader's personality.

If I am right, this is bad news for Brian Williams and the entire industry of agents and aspirants seeking to pocket their share of the network news divisions' diminishing revenues. However, it is not bad news for television audiences, or for the body politic, to the extent that it relies on sound and conscientious journalism from its remaining mainstream media outlets.

And it clearly can be quite good news for Lester Holt.


WHAT IS TRIVIAL AND WHAT IS SERIOUS ABOUT BRIAN WILLIAMS' FIB One of the advantages of watching the network nightly newscasts on broadcast television every night for almost 30 years now, is that when a controversy arises like the one swirling around NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and his 2003 reporting experiences during the invasion of Iraq, I can go to the videotape.

Yes, I actually watched his March 26th report from that year on that attack on Chinook helicopters on VHS tape from my archive last night. Erik Wemple at the Washington Post has the transcript here.

The main angle of Williams' report twelve years ago turned out not to be the rocket-propelled-grenade attack on the Chinook convoy in which he was traveling, but the ensuing sandstorm after the helicopters made their emergency landing in response to the attack and the Abrams tanks that protected them for a couple of days thereafter.

The human-interest tribute to Tim Terpak, the retiring sergeant who enjoys Rangers hockey, which precipitated the current crisis, also focused on the Abrams tanks not the Chinook helicopters, since the sergeant served on the ground not in the air.

The falsehood in Williams' account resides in the embellishment from "I was flying in a convoy of four low-flying helicopters that came under fire, one of which was hit, and was forced to land" to "I was flying in a convoy of four low-flying helicopters that came under fire, two of which were hit, including the one in which I happened to be riding, and was forced to land."

Incidentally, Stars and Stripes quotes helicopter crewmen who do not remember Williams as flying in the Chinook convoy in the first place, which, if true, would make Williams' woes much more serious than they are at present, since his original 2003 report would be impugned, too. Leaving that aside, Brian Stelter at CNN offers a timeline of Williams' various accounts.

Stelter reports that the first time that Williams is on the record as misrepresenting the grenade attack, redirecting it from the convoy as a whole to the particular helicopter in which he was riding, was ten years after the event, when he shared the anecdote with David Letterman on CBS' Late Show. This contradicts the apology Williams made last night on his newscast that his failure of memory occurred for the first time when he was composing his tribute to Terpak.

Be that as it may, journalistically speaking, Williams' fudging of these details is trivial. His embellishment of the level of danger in which he found himself twelve years ago does absolutely nothing to undermine his account of Sergeant Terpak's valor, nor of our understanding of the circumstances of the invasion along the Euphrates river valley. If Williams is in trouble -- and he is -- it is not because of an egregious error in his journalism.

So what is the problem here? Two quick thoughts:

First, the position of anchorman on a network nightly newscast is not just a journalistic one. Williams also has the status of a television celebrity (hence his appearance on Letterman) and as such his appeal to his viewers rests not only on his journalistic bona fides but also on his personality. Is he, personally, perceived by his audience to be intelligent, honest, trustworthy, proportionate, of sound judgment? So, granted, his little fib about which Chinook he was riding in has no journalistic import. Yet it has great import as a glimpse into a flaw in his character. To the extent that this fib makes him look vainglorious, self-aggrandizing, melodramatic, reckless and opportunistic, his journalistic "personality" is damaged as surely as his fudge of the facts turned out to be, journalistically, trivial.

Second, this particular fib that Williams chose to tell -- to identify himself all the more closely with the perils soldiers face in battle -- derives from his underlying editorial judgment to offer instinctive support to the members of the uniformed armed forces. NBC's Williams is not alone in this editorial judgment: CNN's Jake Tapper wrote a bestseller in praise of warriors in Afghanistan; CBS' Lara Logan famously undermined Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone in order to defend a special forces general; ABC's Bob Woodruff sponsors an annual celebrity fundraiser at Madison Square Garden for disabled combat veterans. And it is not only journalists that exhibit such "instinctive support," which is in truth a mere euphemism for "kneejerk adulation." Anyone who attends a major league baseball game observes the same unquestioning endorsement of the uniform and those who wear it.

Jim Fallows of The Atlantic recently observed that such "reverent" solidarity with our troops acts as a ring-fence that protects the entire military-industrial complex from the scrutiny it deserves. So the editorial importance of the fib Williams told is not only that it displays a reflexive desire toward identification with the military; it also represents his own newscast's self-disqualification as a dispassionate journalistic observer of the Pentagon's role in the domestic body politic and the nation's foreign policy. Thus his newscast functions more as supportive propagandist than as skeptical journalist where the armed forces are concerned -- and helps keep Fallows' ring-fence impregnable.


DAVID MUIR'S JOURNALISTIC STYLINGS Hollywood Reporter asked me to provide a primer for newly-arriving viewers of David Muir's ABC World News Tonight. It is cross-posted here.

Now that ABC's World News Tonight has all but climbed into first place in the evening news ratings race, David Muir, the new anchor, can expect an extra sampling from viewers unfamiliar with his journalistic stylings.

Needless to say, this is not your Peter Jennings newscast. Under ABC News president James Goldston, World News has cut back on international and political stories and introduced a sensibility closer to that of Good Morning America, complete with tabloid true crime, sports-and-celebrity coverage, news-you-can-use service journalism and buzz around social media.

Unlike at CBS and NBC, World News offers a cable-news-style graphic that makes a story's headline visible even when the broadcast is on mute. In the month since Muir's arrival, his newscast's pace has quickened and its newshole has shrunk at the expense of teases and promos. For his Instant Index roundup of the most-viewed video online, Muir spends nearly half as much time before the commercial pod telling us what we are about to see as we actually enjoy with the ensuing reveal.

The nightly newscasts initially were conceived as television versions of the news agenda found in major newspapers. To ABC's credit, it is trying to rethink its nightly news to make it medium-specific, news that can be uniquely found on television -- in other words, a video newscast rather than a newscast that happens to use video.

Some innovations are refreshing, others miss the mark, a few are frankly ridiculous. While they are not exclusive to World News, they are seen there more systematically. A sampling viewer should watch for ten telltale tricks.

1.Actuality: The underlying event is not really newsworthy. Either something almost happened but was averted, or the event amounted to local news but had no national consequence. But it happened to have been recorded on video. It's news because there is something startling to see, not because something startling happened. Related audio actuality (911 calls, etc) can get the same treatment.

2.Bait & Switch: Often the video of an event is not enough to sustain an entire package. Watch for a pair of techniques for spinning the story out: First, the use of "watch," whereby the correspondent rolls back the video to play it again, perhaps several times. Second, the bait and switch, in which we are told that the new video is similar to a previous, more serious story that was actually newsworthy.

3.Play One on TV: Cellphone video never will have the production values of fictional moviemakers. So watch for a news event being likened to a movie or TV series, so that it can be illustrated by star-laden footage. Related to the bait-and-switch phenomenon, sometimes a news story will be similar to something that happened previously -- to a celebrity.

4.Self-Promotion: The newscast needs to reassure its viewers that its newsgathering is of a sound pedigree. So World News mixes in file footage of an anchor's previous interaction with a newsmaker or showcases its own correspondents asking confrontational questions or includes a soundbite from an in-house expert like Brad Garrett (ex-FBI) or John Nance (airline pilot) in order to seem more authoritative.

5.People are Paying Attention: Completely nonscientific and unrepresentative popular reaction now can be obtained by quoting from Twitter and Facebook. It looks buzzy and gives the story an air of importance.

6.Reality TV: When Muir was a reporter, he was a master at inserting himself into the middle of a story. He's most famous for striding through factories high-fiving blue-collar workers for the Made in America series -- the journalist as central character in his own reality TV show. Now, Matt Gutman is partially filling Muir's shoes.

7.Soundbite Shortcuts: HBO's John Oliver had fun at 60 Minutes' expense with a montage of interviews with dramatically phrased, well-written soundbites -- except the bites all came from the correspondents' own leading questions. Muir takes no backseat to 60 Minutes. Related, see correspondents channeling Art Linkletter, sitting on the floor trying to get kids to say the darnedest things.

8.Korean Storytelling: When video is not available, ABC relies heavily on its Virtual View computer animation team to depict what they imagine the scene might have looked like. And to take viewers to far-away places, why use ABC's own cameras when Google Earth can do the job?

9.Special Effects: To give video that little extra help to be compelling, music is mostly used for inspirational feature stories (check out ABC's America Strong series), black-and-white video for a sense of personal danger (along with handheld camera), and video game-style, lock-on-target clicks for foreign threats.

10.Verb Mangling: Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley spotted the misuse of "-ing"-ending verbs more than a decade ago. That trend has found renewed favor at ABC, where reporters impart a sense of current urgency to past events by slipping in an "-ing" (example: Joe Biden's son [is] "testing" positive for cocaine). ABC's Paula Faris loving it.


FIVE NOTES FROM TYNDALL REPORT ON END CONTINUATION OF NBC NIGHTLY NEWS WIN STREAK: POSTED ON OCTOBER 7TH Last week, for the first time in over six years, NBC Nightly News failed to attract the largest audience among the broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts. The top spot went to ABC World News Tonight, and its newly installed anchor David Muir, who took over at the start of September.

Five quick points:

1.This should not be seen as the beginning of the ratings setbacks at NBC News nor the beginning of the advances at ABC News. Rather, the change in the evening newscasts is the last domino to fall. NBC had already lost its #1 spot with Today and Meet the Press. Until now, Nightly had been a holdout.

2.There is always greater churn in audience composition when there are changes in the anchor. A new face always inspires sampling: loyal ABC viewers who had been alienated by Diane Sawyer are tempted to return; longtime NBC and CBS viewers seeking variety have a reason to experiment. Such ratings volatility can be expected for the next few months before it can be called a trend.

3.Muir inherited a newscast at ABC that had already undergone significant content changes under his predecessor: "Certifiably Disneyfied," as I pointed out in my review of 2013's newscasts, spending least time on major stories, foreign affairs and politics; most on lifestyle, celebrity, show business and sports. If anything, Muir's newscast has adopted faster format too, pacier than its rivals, and his predecessor. An average hard breaking news package filed by an ABC correspondent lasts just 100 second (138 seconds on NBC, 121 on CBS); the length of an average feature is 120 on ABC (153 on NBC, 133 on CBS).

4.The major news story during Muir's first month as anchor was the war in Iraq and Syria. It is a complex of stories including ISIS, Kurdish peshmerga, USNavy airstrikes from the Persian Gulf, and refugees in Turkey. ABC spent only 38 minutes covering this complex of stories (just 10% of its newshole). By contrast, it would seem that NBC could claim a hard news edge, with 62 minutes last month (15% of its newshole). Yet viewers who wanted the most comprehensive coverage in that timeslot should have chosen neither. CBS Evening News spent the most time, 89 minutes (22% of its newshole).

5.Indeed there is evidence that NBC Nightly News has diluted its hard news appeal in the month since Muir took over. In part by subtraction: Chuck Todd, its chief White House correspondent, left the newscast to take over at Meet the Press. In part, NBC has focused more on celebrity profiles. In just one month (besides legitimate celebrity news -- the death of Joan Rivers, the suspension of Ray Rice, the conviction of Oscar Pistorius) NBC has aired celebrity profiles on Ben Affleck, Tim McGraw, Meredith Vieira, Joan Lunden, Keke Palmer, and Derek Jeter.

Ever since Scott Pelley took over the anchor chair at CBS, Brian Williams at NBC has tried to occupy the middle ground between old school hard news (at CBS) and an increasingly buzzy, tabloidesque, social media approach (at ABC). NBC's celebrity focus in September may be a sign that this middle ground is beginning to feel squeezed and that it has to compete more and more on ABC's turf. If so, it runs the risk of incurring more defections from those looking for serious content: not to Muir but to CBS Evening News.

UPDATE: on October 14th, Nielsen announced a correction to its ratings data to the effect that it had overstated the size of World News Tonight's audience by some 300,000 viewers. Therefore Nightly News' win streak has not been broken. My observations about the trends at play stand, nevertheless.


COMMENTS ON ABC NEWS' COMMENTS Allow me to respond to this statement by ABC News' Jeffrey Schneider regarding my characterization of its nightly newscast as having become Disneyfied in the past year: "Our mission is to give our viewers information that is relevant to their everyday lives. Winning the Murrow for Best Newscast in 2013 and enjoying our best season in 5 years is far more meaningful than Tyndall's method that confuses quantity with quality."

I have no argument with ABC News' characterization of itself as, instead of having a mission to present a serious newscast, embracing a mission to present viewers with "information that is relevant to their everyday lives."

Included among the changes in focus that this new mission represents, among others, are the following:

-- addressing its viewers as consumers (with tips on handling everyday life) rather than citizens (on decisions made by the body politic)
-- a turn away from global concerns (lack of resources spent on Syria-Egypt-Afghanistan) to domestic ones (in particular, the weather)
-- a preoccupation with what people are talking about (the viral buzz of the Instant Index) rather than with what is happening (public policy debates)
-- an emphasis on what entertains people (shobiz, sports, celebrity, human interest, true crime) over what affects them (gun control, healthcare reform, budget policy, surveillance)

Three quick points on quantity and quality:

-- I believe this Murrow award was for the best single day's newscast, not the best newscast day-in, day-out. My analysis takes the long annual view.

-- When ABC refers to its "best season", I believe it is confusing quantity (audience size per Nielsen) with quality, as the saying goes.

-- It is true that the method embodied in my Year in Review uses quantitative measures not qualitative ones. That does not mean that I concede that ABC World News' journalistic style remains unchanged, and only its deployment of resources has switched from seriousness. The Disneyfication of World News is thoroughgoing, embracing both story selection and story presentation.

Lastly, on the issue of ABC's cancelation of its subscription to my database some ten years ago [which is not part of Schneider's public statement, but has been mentioned by him to some media reporters, for example here and here], three more things:

-- If the cancelation was indeed the motivation for my analysis of ABC's 2013 performance, why would I have waited ten years to make this observation? ABC is the one that changed last year, not me.

-- If the executives at ABC believe that no one would notice the changes in the format and content of their newscast simply by resuming their annual subscription with me, then they are deluding themselves.

-- I resent any insinuation that my research findings represent some kind of shakedown: that I would suppress them if only ABC resumed its subscription. Prior to these insinuations, I had no animus towards ABC and would embrace any decision they might make to reverse course and resume serious coverage of the day's news.

UPDATE: here is a reminder of a Columbia Journalism Review article by Paul Friedman, a onetime executive producer at ABC World News Tonight, written 18 months ago. In it he presaged the wholesale changes that became evident during 2013. He quoted ABC's in-house label for their new style: Insurgent!